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Barbara O'Brien

Mind, Mind, and Mind

By October 29, 2013

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I rant about translation issues from time to time, and here's a biggie. There are a mess of words and terms in Asian languages that all get translated "mind," "consciousness," "awareness," "thoughts," "heart," "intellect," and what have you. But these words and terms do not all mean the same thing, and most English translations give readers no hint of that.

In the Sutta-pitaka and other early Pali and Sanskrit texts, three words appear frequently that all get translated as "mind" (or heart, or awareness, or intellect, etc.). These are (in Sanskrit) citta, vijnana, and manas. These words really don't mean the exact same thing, but you wouldn't know that from most English translations. And I think understanding the distinctions is helpful.

Part of the confusion is that the old-timers didn't classify mental activities in the same way that we do in the 21st century West, so there is no shorthand English equivalent for what these words mean. I want things to divide neatly into, for example, intellect and logic on one hand and emotive thinking on the other hand, and our three terms don't work that way. In different ways, they all touch on thinking, and they all touch on feelings.

So sorting out the difference isn't simple. But the effort ought to be made.

I spent part of yesterday looking into manas. When you hear that karma is created by body, speech, and mind; or thoughts, words, and deeds (same thing), manas is the word translated as "mind" or "thoughts." Manas also is the mind/heart/thoughts/whatever referenced in the opening verses of the Dhammapada -- e.g., "mind precedes all mental states" (translations vary).

So manas is kind of a big deal. And I've got a supposedly authoritative Dictionary of Buddhism at hand that flat-out defines manas as "intellect." But the longer I looked at it, the less it seemed to be "intellect" to me.

Manas is found in the Vedic religions of India that came before Buddhism, and to the Vedics, manas was thought to be the originator of thoughts and emotions, located in the heart. It is also the foundation of personal identity and atman. So in that tradition, and in modern-day Hindusim, it's something like a soul.

In early Buddhism, manas became something like a sense or system that processes sense-stimulation (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, awareness) and passes them on to other mental functions, creating concepts. This process, as I understand it, involves both intellect and emotions.

In Yogacara, manas, or manas-vijnana, is the seventh consciousness that generates the illusion of a self. (Some of you probably understand Yogacara better than I do, so please correct me if I'm wrong on this.) If you understand how manas was borrowed from the Vedic traditions, this definition makes sense, I think.

But knowing all this makes me very annoyed at the dictionary-compiler who defined manas as "intellect." Thinking of it only as intellect is unhelpful, IMO.

October 29, 2013 at 10:05 pm
(1) JonJ says:

You are absolutely right that reading all traditional Buddhist texts in English translation is very misleading. Not only do the various Sanskrit or Pali terms that are all translated by “mind” have very different meanings, but there are huge differences between the writings in Sanskrit/Pal, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other languages. And when students read the English translations, the texts all get homogenized into a linguistic environment in which none of them were at home. So conscientious translators try to counteract this tendency as much as possible. But very few of us can master all of the traditional languages, so we have to make the best of it.

October 30, 2013 at 1:48 am
(2) Hein says:

A minefield as far as I am concerned trying to understand manas, citta and vijnana. Have taken the liberty to google and came across DT Suzuki’s view. Seems your view Barbara correspond with Suzuki’s (see below) although he phrase it different. The “willing” reminds me of Nietzsche’s “will to power”.

“Manas roughly corresponds to mind as an organ of thought, but in fact it is more than that, for it is also a strong power of attaching itself to the result of thinking. The latter may even be considered subordinate to this power of attachment. The Manas first wills, then it discriminates to judge; to judge is to divide, and this dividing ends in viewing existence dualistically. Hence the Manas’ tenacious attachment to the dualistic interpretation of existence. Willing and thinking are inextricably woven into the texture of Manas.”
from http://lirs.ru/do/lanka_eng/lanka-intro.htm#introduction

October 30, 2013 at 11:03 am
(3) Mila says:

For anyone who might be interested, here are the equivalent Tibetan terms & short definitions — with the caveat that (as Barbara has pointed out) there are numerous variations, across lineage, translators and time. A nice resource for learning about the “eight consciousnesses” from a Tibetan point of view, is Thrangu Rinpoche’s book, Transcending Ego: Distinguishing Consciousness From Wisdom.

Tibetan: rnam par ‘es pa = Sanskrit: vijnana — consciousness (what cognizes the object in the present moment)

consciousness; the unimpeded avenue for the manifestation of sensory objects. Also: perception; modes of awareness or perception


Tibetan: sems = Sanskrit: citta — ordinary mind

mind in the ordinary sense, characterized by the nonrecognition of awareness (rigpa), with thoughts subject to origination and cessation as the dynamic energy of this nonrecognition. Also: thought process; all levels of awareness other than rigpa


Tibetan: yid = Sanskrit: manas — conceptualization

consciousness based on conceptual mind; interpreting function; conceptualizing function

October 30, 2013 at 11:58 am
(4) Mila says:

p.s. Barbara, thanks for the great distillation of the Yogacara view of these terms, in your essays — which I found to be really helpful in understanding them, in a “big picture” way

October 31, 2013 at 11:31 pm
(5) martin says:

When ever i run across these terms i read more about what is being said which then clarifies the term mind. The problem may not be a translation as much as not listening to the rest of the speech. Mind is not only the brain but refers to our intelligence, our thoughts, our ability to enhance or expand a word, our ability to think without reference, our morality, and may things not physical. But is is also physical such as our mind meaning brain. Remember also, they (the originators) if they came back today could not communicate in exactly the same way, for they would have many more words available, but their MEANINGS would not change.

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